Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stardom, Sex, Scandal, Shame, Suicide and Soccer..

While playing for the Norfolk U15 and U18 soccer teams in the backwaters of England in 1975-1978 we players had no idea we were at the birth of the making of social history concerning sex, racism and sport - only years later did we learn that we were witnessing the making of the first openly gay and the first million-pound black soccer superstar, and that our coach was perpetrating child sex abuse that would trigger a worldwide revolution in sports management.

Justin Fashanu (above) was in our U18 team, then became the first black million-pound soccer player, and was the third highest goalscorer in the English Premier League in 1980-81. He was also the first gay to out in the sport, suffered greatly for it, and committed suicide in 1998 after allegations of an improper relationship in the US with a 17-year-old (although the charges had been dropped).

Nick Baker is now writing a book about him, and this is what I communicated to Nick about the quiet, tall striker:

"Justin told me he didn't really want to play football - he was more interested in boxing as a kid, having, I believe, won the English Schools championship. At the time it struck us as weird that a kid with talent actually wouldn't want to play football.

Later on I wondered how many gay boxing champions there have ever been - to me that concept in itself invalidates the perception that no gays can be tough, aggressive and manly, a perception that I suspect underlies the public distaste for gays in the US military.

But in our games on rainy, windswept, muddy Norfolk fields, Justin wasn't the hardest fighter, and would sometimes lose enthusiasm completely, shivering, standing around with his arms folded while the rest of us were huffing and puffing. But then, before anyone noticed, the ball was suddenly in the back of the net and he had put it there. It was like he played in a different dimension.

I remember trying in vain to mark him in practice games (I was a defender). In one of these he twice just popped out of nowhere, stuck a foot out and the ball was in the net. The U18 coach, Graeme Morgan, knew what talent he had (and let the rest of us lesser mortals know about it!) - and within a year or so Fashanu was the Norwich City side in what is now the Premier League, and scoring profusely"

We were just tough, scrapping footballing teenagers.

We had no idea what a star Fashanu would become or that he was gay.

We had no idea what News-of-the-World style tabloid controversy would haunt him later.

And we had no idea that our U15 soccer coach, Paul Hickson, would go on to become Chief Coach of the British Olympic Swimming team, leading them to their best ever performance at the Seoul games. His record-breaking 1988 squad had seven Olympic finalists and included stars like Adrian Moorhouse and Nick Gillingham, who scooped three golds, and silver and bronze medals.

And we had no idea that while we were playing for Hickson he was abusing young female swimmers from our local schools, that he would be doing this for over ten years, that 15 years later, he would be jailed for 17 years for the sex attacks on teenagers in his elite squads, and that his conviction would trigger an ongoing worldwide clean-up.............

Scruffy, scrapping soccer kids unwittingly at the budding of a nexus of change, oblivious to the gathering storm that redefined homosexuality, racism and child abuse in sport....

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